UPDATED with information on Lifetime’s streaming of non-broadcast games.
NWSL has finally released the list of which games will be broadcast on Lifetime at 4 PM ET every Saturday. Fans have been able to guess for a while based on the NWSL schedule by looking at which teams were in that 4 PM slot, and then making a few educated assumptions based on venue (playing in an MLS stadium is key). Now the list is officially out, along with information on Lifetime’s broadcast crew.
Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner will be on the call, with Hildreth doing PBP and Wagner as a game analyst. Dalen Cuff will do pregame and sideline, and Kate Markgraf will be a game analyst and pregame host. Wagner and Markgraf are both good calls; both have very ably called USWNT games over the years and will be assets to NWSL.
The schedule, as expected, leans very heavily towards teams with MLS facilities. All times are ET.
For those of you counting, the teams that will appear on a Lifetime broadcast the most, including both home and away appearances, are the Houston Dash and the Orlando Pride, with seven games each. Next are Portland and Chicago with six games each, North Carolina with five games, Sky Blue and Seattle with four games, Washington with three, and finally poor Boston and FC Kansas City with one game each.
Fans of Boston and FCKC will surely be displeased to see their clubs get so little airtime, even as the away opponent. Is it just the way things are at the moment, with some clubs in arguably better facilities than others? Perhaps. Scheduling this season was apparently a nightmare, if the extremely late release date was any indicator. Behind-the-scenes whispers indicated a schedule that needed multiple reworkings, especially to comply with the strict tenet that a game must be in the 4 PM ET Saturday slot, with another game also in that slot as a backup in case of technical difficulties. (There are a few exceptions with no backup game in the slot, such as June 3, when only the Courage and FCKC are scheduled to play at 4 PM.) And there is something to be said for the consistency of being able to point to a dedicated time slot on a network when you absolutely know a live soccer game will be on.
But this schedule highlights the divide between MLS-backed teams and teams with independent owners, with North Carolina kind of in the middle. Five games each will be broadcast from Portland and Orlando, with four games from North Carolina, three each from Chicago and Houston, and one from Sky Blue and Seattle. Washington, Boston, and FCKC are all scheduled at one point or another in that 4 PM Saturday slot as a backup, so presumably each one will have the equipment to start broadcasting in an emergency. But Washington, Boston, and FCKC play at the Maryland Soccerplex, Harvard’s Jordan Field, and Swope Soccer Village respectively, while Portland, Orlando, Chicago, Houston, and North Carolina all have access to much more photogenic soccer stadiums that perhaps have better broadcast infrastructure. As for Sky Blue and Seattle’s one game each at Yurcak Field and Memorial stadium respectively, that seems a case of filling in the holes on the schedule. We also still don’t know how the league will handle the non-TV games. Will they continue to stream for free on youtube without geoblocking? That access has arguably been a fairly important factor in the league’s popularity and ability to reach audiences, not to mention an important resource for news outlets looking to cover the entire league.
What happens to NWSL if some teams get the lion’s share of airtime over the next three years? If some brands get national exposure much more than others? Will this be encouragement for teams to move into more broadcast-friendly stadiums? What if a team doesn’t have a stadium that quite fits Lifetime’s criteria, or finds it most cost-effective and best for local fans in terms of location and amenities to stay in a non-broadcast stadium? Is this just the result of having to last-minute rework the schedule between the A+E deal and the WNY Flash moving to North Carolina?
Perhaps 2018 will show more balance in who gets on screen and who doesn’t. For now, it’s slightly concerning that the TV schedule so heavily favors certain teams, but 2017 was such a giant shift in the NWSL landscape that perhaps some patience is warranted. Still, it’s hard not to think that Lifetime will want to stick with the nice stadiums and not the tiny college fields. These are all symptoms of NWSL’s growing pains; it’ll be interesting to see how the individual clubs try to keep up with that growth.